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A vote for democracy, Putin-style

Russia's president is expected to win reelection handily Sunday - with tactics that critics decry as 'Soviet.'

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Just days before Sunday's presidential elections, there are no mass rallies, and few banners and posters of candidates. Yet this low-key vote is expected to say volumes about Russia's "managed democracy," as well as what Russians want in a leader.

President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to win reelection by a wide margin, came to power four years ago promising a "dictatorship of the law." Indeed, he has brought a new stability and economic growth, while playing it tough in Chechnya - as well as with political rivals, constricting the marketplace of ideas in favor of firm control from the top.

Critics and a handful of opposition candidates - who between them can't muster a fraction of Mr. Putin's over 70 percent popularity rating - charge that Sunday's vote is a "farce" that has been pre-engineered by the Kremlin, and marks the end of Russia's experiment with democracy.

But for Putin's true believers in this Moscow campaign office - a low building tucked away anonymously on a quiet street, without a poster in sight - his campaign is democracy in action.

They have taken 700 phone calls, seen 900 visitors, and received more than 3,000 letters in the past month. Then they boil down those public sentiments, details of people's problems and policy suggestions, and give them daily, they say, to the candidate.

"Nobody makes people come here, or leads them by the hand," says Yuri Borodin, the silver-haired head of this "public reception" office, which, with its discreet surveillance cameras and uniformed police guards, is one of 89 spread across Russia. The only sign that a campaign is under way are black-and-white photocopy handouts of Putin family snapshots.

Turnout worries

Among the messages is growing fear of overconfidence, that a second Putin term is too much a foregone conclusion. If less than half the voters turn up, an embarrassing run-off could result. Only 56 percent cast ballots during parliamentary elections in December, though presidential races typically draw more voters.

"Even those who support Putin are concerned that people are so sure he will win, they won't come out to vote," admits Mr. Borodin, who has little time for other candidates who are crying foul. "How can anyone say everything is decided, if they give up from the beginning? Maybe when they have nothing to say to their voters, they can say there is not enough democracy."

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